Sony Vita to bring geocaching-inspired 'Near' app

Location-based gaming is nothing new, but Sony might be giving it the boost it needs to hit the mainstream with a little-known feature of its next-generation PlayStation Vita: Near.

While firm details of the technology have yet to be released, a press release from US mobile provider AT&T offers an insight into what Near will offer gamers. "Developed specifically for PlayStation Vita and pre-installed on each system," the statement reads, "'Near' will allow users to find out what other PS Vita users in their vicinity are currently playing and what titles are most popular in the area."

So far, the technology sounds remarkably similar to that offered by Nintendo's 3DS hand-held console in the form of StreetPass: a method of communicating with nearby systems in order to exchange data on favourite games, high scores, and small tid-bits of social data such as favourite colours.

Near, however, promises to take the concept to the next level.

"'Near' also enables location-based gaming features such as 'gifting,'" AT&T reveals, "in which a user can access virtual game-related items that other users are sharing, through checking in at geographic locations that others have also visited. The virtual items can include content unlocked from games, such as character costumes, weapons and treasures."

With the concept of 'gifting,' Sony may have stumbled upon the secret of success in the location-based gaming field. As with the rest of Near's functionality it's not new, but offers a twist on an already existing concept: geocaching.

One of the first technology-driven location-based games, geocaching is an increasingly popular - if somewhat geeky - hobby whereby users hide 'caches' in locations marked only by their latitude and longitude coordinates. These coordinates are entered into players' GPS devices - or pinpointed on a map for the traditionalists - and the location of the hidden cache found.

Geocaching is remarkably effective at getting traditionally indoor types - gadget-hungry geeks - out into the real world, and there are multitudes of caches to be found all over the world. Near takes this concept and removes the real-world objects, replacing it with a virtual representation thereof.

It's the sort of hook that services like Foursquare have been desperately trying to find for years. Getting users to check in to physical locations rewards companies with vast swathes of useful data on their habits, but, without some form of reward, people are reluctant to play along. Foursquare grew on the basis on 'badges' that could be shown off, before companies started adding offers and discounts for the 'Mayor' of a particular location.

These discounts come at a real-world cost, however, and today there are few companies that bother to offer such an incentive for users to check in to a particular location. By tying Near to virtual objects provided by the users themselves, Sony is creating a user-driven 'economy' whereby the incentive for users to check in to locations is is provided by other users. All Sony needs to do is sit back and enjoy the flow of data.

With both Sony and Nintendo, the only two real players in the hand-held gaming market, pushing location-based gaming, there can be little doubt that the game developers will follow. With gaming companies under increasing pressure from cracker groups, however, it's unlikely to be long before such services hit the headlines as a privacy concern.

Both Google and Apple have already come under fire for location-tracking technologies built into their respective mobile operating systems, with the European Union going so far as to propose new legislation that would require companies to carry explicit warnings as to their usage of such data. With gaming - and mobile gaming in particular - still seen, no matter how inaccurately, as something for kids, it's a problem that could cause even stronger ructions.

So far, Sony hasn't commented on how the Near functionality will work, what kind of tracking its servers will do, or even whether it will be available only to gamers above a certain age. As we get closer to the Vita's launch, hopefully more details will appear.